Kudos to ESPN for raising the psycho behavior of Rutgers University hoops coach Mike Rice, who was fired today as a result of the sports network’s report. Though I am a huge pro sports fan, watching Rice’s abusive behavior toward his young student athletes makes me glad I made a conscious decision years ago not to follow NCAA sports. I just couldn’t wrap my arms around the notion that while everybody associated with big college sports is making fortunes — from networks like CBS and ESPN, to broadcasters to coaches, and everyone in between — student athletes make this big business possible and only get scholarships that are paltry compensation compared to the proceeds their efforts generate. And since these kids work as hard at their sports endeavors as pro athletes do, graduation rates are understandably not high; imagine how little time and concentration powers a teenager has left for course work after the eons of hours it takes to practice and play games in season, with an intensity level and the kind of coach abuse evident in this Rutgers video (check it out below)? It is infuriating to see this, or even the gruesome footage of Louisville Cardinals player Kevin Ware breaking his leg in the NCAA Tournament over the weekend. (I wonder if he will he be discarded by the university, if he cannot regain his prowess with an injury like that.) The NCAA polices and punishes needy student athletes who step outside its rules that pay college stars the equivalent of pauper salaries. But at the same time, schools routinely move their sports programs from one conference to another, when it means more money in TV deals. It’s all about the bucks for everybody but the student athlete. Beyond a seat in a classroom and room and board, the players don’t get compensated at all, and the system is rigged with pro leagues that set age minimums forcing even sure-fire prospects to risk injury and work for free for at least a year or two.
This kind of indentured servitude is not limited to sports — covering Hollywood, I’ve heard many stories over the years from agents about their days of being hazed in the mail room or serving on the desk of some hot-tempered agent, or from ex-assistants forced to undertake demeaning tasks like walking a producer’s pet pig. But these wannabe agents and studio execs usually come from monied and well connected families, and have plenty of reason to put up with the abuse. And they are least getting paid. Student athletes in major college sports often come from families who don’t make much money and would be hard pressed to put their kids through college any other way. They are there hoping to fulfill that long shot dream of making it to the pros. While the old exploitative Hollywood actor contract system went by the wayside, as did rules allowing pro sports teams to underpay players who had no free agency leverage, the NCAA system continues to flourish. And the sums of revenue realized without having to pay those responsible for it become more dizzying every year.
Until major college sports figures out a way to put even a small percentage of sports revenues into the trust fund accounts for student athletes in the sports making all that money, I’ll stick with the pro leagues, where they play for pay. Imagine finding out that your kid student athlete had to put up with the kind of loutish coach behavior depicted below, in order to hang onto his scholarship? And what about the Rutgers hierarchy that gave this coach a wrist slap suspension when they first viewed this video, and only took the appropriate action when it blew up because of ESPN? Remember, Rutgers is the school where a gay student committed suicide by jumping off a bridge after his roommate secretly taped him in a compromising moment, and here the coach is shouting homophobic epithets. It sounds as insensitive and hard to believe as the Penn State scandal, where a pedophile roamed the locker room on campus for years, the whole thing blowing up when the scandal became public and impossible to ignore. And only then did the NCAA act, punishing a program whose current crop of student athletes had nothing to do with any of this. Is the collegiate sports experience about generating money and winning, or to help mold minds and character in student athletes? It’s just wrong the way student athletes are exploited; they are like any other entertainers who should be paid what they’re worth.